Thursday, 10 October 2013

Arctic Anna: In the ice queen's court


Here's one from the vaults, dating back to 1998 or thereabouts. My 15 minutes with Anna Kournikova's fame. Originally ran in the South China Morning Post.

ANNA KOURNIKOVA IS SASHAYING down the hallway to a Harbour Plaza Hotel suite, tight black pants arc-welded to those million-dollar legs, blonde tresses bouncing back and forth in perfect shampoo-commercial slow-motion, a crescent of tanned brown skin peeking cheekily from under her cropped black top. And for reasons best left unexplained, Sisqo's chart-topping Thong Song is looping about in my head.

The minders are polite but firm as we enter the room. 'You have 15 minutes.' It seems apposite, almost Warholian. Fame is a commodity parcelled out in slick little packets these days, and they don't come much more famous than Anna Kournikova: 19-year-old calendar queen, Internet goddess, sports bra endorser, and, oh yes, tennis player.

Her face registers instant disapproval as a blast of arctic air greets us and there is a stampede to render the temperature acceptable. Thunderheads bearing portents of chills and strained muscles roll ominously across her brow. 'Turn it to warm air,' she orders. 'Turn it to high,' agrees her father, a short and taciturn former Russian wrestler named Sergei. As a warm sigh flutters from the vents, the storm clouds recede and she settles with a coiled grace by the window.

There are probably several million males who would give their right arm to be sitting where I am now, close enough to smell her garden-fresh scent, watching the afternoon sun slanting off the harbour and turning her big blue eyes opalescent. She is truly as beautiful in the flesh as she is in the countless photographs on some 5,000 Web sites by her army of devotees; as luminous as the ubiquitous images used to boost circulation by publications as diverse as The Sun and Forbes.

Anna mania is as inescapable as it is rampant. Pity the seven other contestants in this week's Watson's Water Challenge tennis tournament at Victoria Park from tomorrow to Saturday. They were presumably cooling their heels in their rooms while, at a special 'Meet Anna Kournikova' press conference, hacks drooled obsequious inanities and panted panegyrics that would make a North Korean leader writer blush. Neither was I immune. Indeed, I had spent the best part of a week boasting to anyone who would listen that I was the chosen one, the anointed, the blessed recipient of an exclusive, one-on-one audience with Anna Kournikova.

I had told myself that despite the brevity of our conversation, I might glean something of the real person behind the phenomenon. Alas, I was deluded. Even up close and personal, Kournikova is so sleek and glossed and spin-doctored, so meticulously rehearsed and replete with smug self-confidence, that you realise it's impossible to crack the lacquered facade. I felt like one of those machines that fire tennis balls - my questions were either volleyed back with monosyllabic grunts or sent soaring with studied topspin.

So is it hard being Anna Kournikova? 'No. It's not hard. It's all really well organised. I know why I'm here. My priority is tennis and that's why I'm here. My parents are always travelling with me. It would be very difficult to travel alone on the tour and be 11 months alone on the road with no family. So it really helps me and gives me mental and moral support and I really enjoy it right now.'

Her mother, Alla, a former sprinter, reputedly oversees her daughter's career with a ruthless and military singlemindedness. Kournikova is now ranked eighth in the world after her best-ever year but her earnings from modelling and endorsements dwarf those of other women on the tour.

Last year she raked in more than US$10 million (HK$78 million) in endorsements, second only to Andre Agassi. And with lucrative deals with the likes of Adidas and Berlei sports bras - 'Only The Balls Should Bounce' proclaim billboards featuring three-metre-tall renderings of Kournikova's Berlei-encased bust - her net worth can only soar.

I ask whether Venus Williams' five-year US$40 million deal with Reebok has set a new standard for female tennis players' earnings. Kournikova laughs. Then her limpid eyes turn flinty. 'I don't think so. Not for me.'

Her glamour-girl image and the rewards it reaps has sparked resentment among some of the other players. Frenchwoman Nathalie Tauziat in her tell-all book, Women's Tennis Stripped Bare, warns that too much emphasis is being put on beauty. 'In my opinion, Anna has already had enough adulation,' she writes, '. . . we'll get to the absurd situation where she falls victim to a system that she herself helped develop. I like her but who does she think she is when she parades around like a queen at the French Open, so absorbed that she does not even notice hands holding out autograph books for her to sign?'

Switzerland's Patty Schnyder says she has 'personal problems' with Kournikova and falls apart every time they play. Kournikova, however, couldn't care less. 'Well, I think I've beaten her five times in a row and she's never beaten me so I guess she's not really happy about me. That's the only reason I can figure out why, because I don't even know her. We don't even talk.

'I don't feel any resentment,' she says, 'but I think every player has the right to their own opinion and that's it. You can think what you want. It's your personal decision.'

She also denies questioning the pulchritude of strike-breaking actress Elizabeth Hurley after being knocked out of Wimbledon. 'I never said she was ugly. In fact I think she's great, I really like her in the movie Austin Powers, it's one of my really favourite movies. I met her at Buckingham Palace when I played an exhibition game and she was really nice. I think because we were in England the press just needed some sensation, needed something to write about. I love England still but they get carried away a bit.'

An account of a conversation between Kournikova and her almost equally dishy mother in Interview magazine, if accurate, would seem to sum up the family's ethos - either get on board the juggernaut or get out of the way.

Alla: 'Everybody is friendly. Everyone is happy. Everyone is making money. You know, the lesbians, the players who sleep with their coaches. We don't care.'

Anna: 'No, we don't care.'

Alla: 'We don't care.'

Anna: 'We don't care.'

Kournikova was born in Moscow on June 7, 1981 and showed a prowess for tennis almost as soon as she could walk. At seven she entered her first tournament and enrolled at Spartak, the elite sports academy. At the Kremlin Cup, she was spotted by a talent scout who tipped off the massive US sports agency International Management Group. In February 1992, she moved to Nick Bollettieri's Florida tennis school. 'I've seen them all,' he said at the time, 'and this one frightens me. Even when the big studs were here she wanted all the attention. I could be working with Andre [Agassi] and she would say 'Nick, I need you to work with me'.'

Miami is, nominally, home, 'although to me right now nothing really feels like home. To me the airplane feels like home. Hotel rooms feel like home'. She visits Russia whenever she can and says she is putting some of her wealth into sports charities there.

A trawl through the press clips reveals dozens of weird one-liners. I ask her about my favourite, which presumably alludes to her oft-proclaimed virginity: 'I'm like an expensive menu. You can look but you can't afford.'

Her eyes open wide and she fixes me with a look of injured innocence. 'I didn't say that. For me, materialism and money are not the most important thing. The moral part, that's more important than materialism.'

Those duelling for her affections include hockey players Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov. Bure gave her a US$1.6 million diamond ring in February. Fedorov sent her 200 roses a month later.

So what's the name of her latest flame? 'I don't have any new ones. I only have my old one.' And who would that be? 'I don't think I'm going to make it more difficult for all of us by saying who it is.'

I glance down at her wrist and notice the name Sergei written in henna. Either she's devoted to her dad, or the roses triumphed over the rock.

Surely all the attention must make anything resembling a normal relationship impossible, in any case. 'No, actually it's very easy. If two people understand each other it's very normal.'

She trots out her stock answer when asked if she's ever felt exploited by promoters cashing in on her looks. 'I can't change the way I look, like I always say. This is my face and it's not like we're exaggerating it. We're here to play. If I was ranked 10,000 or 500, no one would be interested in me.'

Isn't it weird knowing every second dozens of men are downloading images of her from the Internet to gasp and drool over? 'I guess I'm pretty much used to it. I'm really flattered people are interested in me, I just want to give back to them, play well. I'm just really excited to have so many good fans. I don't worry about security or crazy people. Sometimes it gets pretty wild but I know it's like, maybe they have this one opportunity of seeing someone they really like one time a year and I would probably be the same way if I was to see some other famous person. But I'm really just excited that people are into tennis and they like me.'

What about the jibes that she's yet to win a tournament. 'Well, I can't complain, because it's true actually. But I know that I'm playing hard, the ranking is important to me, this is my highest ranking so far. I know I'm a good player. I've beaten five number ones in the past 15 years so that's a good record and I've beaten almost everybody in the top 20, in the top 10. I feel like this year was great for me, very consistent and the best year so far.'

The supercool facade slips for a nanosecond when I ask about her memories of her last visit to Hong Kong two years ago. Something almost akin to a girlish giggle slips out. 'I got a dress made, teeheehee. I'm going to get some more this time too. A Chinese one, and a velvet suit.'

The minders are making wind-it-up gestures and it looks like my 15 minutes with fame are over. As I'm leaving, who should be waiting outside but Manu Melwani, proprietor of Sam's Tailor, needle-wielder to the stars and self-promoter extraordinaire. He's wearing a natty brown suit. His tape measure is dangling from his left hand. And he's got a grin on his face like he's the luckiest man alive.

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